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Summary of 'Words are windows, Introduction to nonviolent communication' by Marshall Rosenberg

Summary of 'Words are windows, Introduction to nonviolent communication' by Marshall Rosenberg

“Words are windows” is an introduction to non violent communication (abbreviated as NVC). Marshall Rosenberg presents in this book the process that allows us to communicate more serenely with others as well as with ourselves. This mode of communication allows us to become more and more caring, authentic, and empathic with others. It can therefore be used in all interactions of everyday life: as a couple, with our children, at work … NVC is proving to be a very effective way to manage conflicts, and also to better identify our own needs.

At the source of Non Violent Communication

NVC has 4 four key components:
  1. Observation – specific facts/data, no evaluation/judgment
  2. Feeling – state how we feel (many failure modes here)
  3. Need – the need underlying this feeling
  4. Request – must be specific action to address need

First we observe what is really happening in a given situation. These observations must be stated without judgment. Then we take into account the feelings that are awaken by this situation. Then, we look at what are the needs that are related to these feelings. And finally, we look at what we could concretely ask for to satisfy these needs.

“When …, I feel …, because I am needing …. Therefore, I would now like ….”

When Communication Hurts Benevolence

The author indicates that over time, we have 4 types of alienating language , which are obstacles to benevolence:
  • Moralizing judgments : making moralistic judgments about people whose actions do not correspond to our values. Example: “he is lazy”. Our judgement of others is the expression of our own needs and feelings
  • Making comparisons : comparing oneself to others is a form of judgment, and can hinder benevolence towards oneself and others.
  • Refusing our responsibilities : this prevents the individual from becoming fully aware that he is responsible for his thoughts, feelings and actions. The expression “must”, used very often is a good example.
  • Finally, communicating our desires in the form of demands. The recipient will feel the threat of punishment or reproach if he does not respond favorably to the request. Children can be a good example of why it doesn’t work as expected.

Observing Without Evaluating

The first step of NVC is to distinguish between observation and evaluation. If we mix the two, our interlocutor risks hearing a criticism and resist what we are saying.
  • An evaluation would be “John is really not a punctual person”
  • An observation is “John arrived twice late this week”

Other example of evaluation words: Always, never, ever, whenever, frequently, seldom…

Identify and express our feelings

Identify and express our feelings is the second step in the process. Express our vulnerability can help to solve conflicts. Unfortunately, many of us have learned to work with our head rather than our heart. We must relearn the language of the heart. We must distinguish between what we feel and we think we are. The author insists on the importance of differentiating feelings from mental interpretations. The words “feel” and “feeling” are often used, not to express a feeling but rather a thought, judgements or interpretations.

For example “I feel like a failure” or “I feel it’s useless” are mental interpretations. While “I feel sad” or “I am impatient to start” express feelings.

It could be necessary to develop a vocabulary of feelings so that we can express our feelings and emotions clearly. This will make it easier to establish a sincere connection with others.

Taking responsibility for our feelings

Taking responsibility for our feelings and discovering the needs that are behind them is the third step of Non Violent Communication. The acts of others may be the trigger but never the cause of our feelings. Faced with a negative message, the author identifies 4 ways to react:
  1. to feel guilty
  2. blame the other
  3. perceive our feelings and needs
  4. seek to perceive the feelings and needs of the other

Let’s look at the different cases and their consequences: Marie says to her husband Douglas “You forgot to buy me some butter, that I asked you last night!” Here are the 4 ways Jean could answer:
  • “yes you’re right, I’m really distracted” He feels guilty. The associated feelings will be of worthlessness, guilt and depression.
  • “You only had to remind me this morning or send me a message to make me think!” He blames his wife. This increases the feeling of anger.
  • “When you express yourself that way, I do not feel respected, because I need you to accept that I can forget.” Here, he becomes aware of his feeling and expresses the associated need.
  • “Do you feel angry because you have the impression that I did not listen to you and that you need consideration?” Jean takes into account the feeling of his wife and tries to express the associated need.

The last two ways are good ways to use Non Violent Communication and allow a sincere exchange based on mutual understanding. Expressing your needs and feelings in this way is not easy, especially in today’s society, where being modest is de rigueur. Only it is the most effective way to communicate serenely, in a true exchange and respectful of the other.
  • Judgments of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs. For example :
  • Autonomy: to choose one’s goals, values, plans
  • Celebration: creation of life and goals fulfilled, celebrate loss through mourning
  • Integrity: authenticity, creativity, self-worth
  • Interdependence: acceptance, appreciation, community, enriching life, safety, empathy, honesty, love, respect, support, trust, understanding
  • Play: fun, laughter
  • Spiritual Communion: peace, harmony, beauty
  • Physical Nurturance: food, exercise, rest, sex, shelter, touch, protection

If we do not give values to our needs, others will not give them any consideration. By learning to take responsibility for our feelings, we usually go through 3 phases:
  1. Affective slavery where we believe we are responsible for the feelings of others (keep everyone happy)
  2. the execrable phase where we refuse to admit that the feelings and needs of others matter to us
  3. Affective liberation in which we fully assume our own feelings and respond to the needs of others out of compassion

Ask what would contribute to our well-being

Formulating a request is the 4th and final step in the process. The author recommends that we respect a few criteria:
  • Request what we want, not what we don’t want. First of all, he advises to use a positive action language, because negative requests can cause confusion and resistance.
  • Make a clear request. For the application to be clear, it must be formulated in a sincere, concise and precise manner. The more we make a precise request, the more likely we are to get it. Vague language also results in internal confusion.
  • Ask the listener to reflect it back in their own words. In order to avoid misunderstandings, we sometimes have to make sure that the request has been understood (by reformulating for example). We should express appreciation (for example “I’m grateful to you for telling me what you heard.”) and empathize with the listener who doesn’t want to reflect back.
  • Request, not requirement. Finally, it’s very important that the interlocutor does not feel the demand as a requirement. Requests are received as demands when they think they will be blamed/punished for non-compliance. For an application to be a request and not a requirement, our interlocutors must be able to answer negatively without fear of reproach. We should not engage in persuasion until we have empathized with what prevented that person’s acceptance.

Receiving with empathy

To listen with empathy, we must not listen with our head, but with our whole being. We must “forget about” to listen to each other. But we tend to give advice, to comfort or give our opinion, while the person just wants to be heard. Empathy is emptying the mind and listening with our entire self, which only occurs when we have shed preconceived notions and judgments.

To listen with empathy, we should:
  • Reflect back to others what we heard. This reveals our understanding, while eliciting necessary corrections. Hearing a paraphrase will be more reassuring than simply saying you understand.
  • Allow others to fully express themselves before turning to requests or solutions. We should offers them some time to reflect on their own words. Don’t ask for information without first sensing the speaker’s reality (e.g. “Why are you feeling that way?”). We should persist in empathy until the speaker has exhausted all of their feelings, marked by a release of tension in the body, or the speaker stops talking. We recognize the release of tension in their body by feeling a corresponding release in our own.
  • Interrupt with empathy, they might be needing it without realizing. We should openly express our desire to be more connected and request information. Lifeless conversations for the listener are equally so for the speaker. It is more considerate to interrupt than to pretend to listen.
  • Listen to ourselves. When we have trouble empathizing with others, it is a sign we require empathy ourselves. We can (and must) give ourselves the same quality of listening and thus better identify our own needs before dealing with those of others.

At last it may be difficult to empathize with those who are closest to us.

The Power of Empathy

Developing our ability to empathize gives us access to new resources. According to the author, using empathy allows us to remain both sincere and vulnerable, which creates a real link with the other person. This sometimes helps to heal suffering by breaking down certain psychological barriers. Empathy alone can defuse a danger, and a risk of violence. It allows us to accept a rejection without seeing a rejection, to revive a conversation and even sometimes to understand what is not said in words.

Let us relate to ourselves with kindness

It is surely in our relationship with ourselves that the NVC plays its most important role. It’s difficult to be benevolent with others if one is violent and self-righteous towards oneself. When we catch ourselves being reproached, the author advises us to stop and ask ourselves: “What is the unfulfilled need expressed through this moral judgment?”. This corresponds to mourning in CNV: we relate to unmet needs and associated feelings. We evaluate how the behavior we regret went against our need, and we welcome the feeling that emerges from this awareness. Following this mourning, we forgive ourselves by giving empathy to the part of ourselves that has acted in the past. To forgive ourselves, we identify the need that has led to our behavior in the past, and we create this empathic, nonjudgmental link.

The author also insists that our actions should be animated by a desire for life rather than by fear, shame or obligation. He gives as an example all the sentences that we start with “I must,” “must”. He proposes us is to translate the “I must” into “I choose”. In this way, we become fully responsible for our actions. He goes even further and proposes to take back all that “we must do”, all that we are obliged to do without joy and to make sentences with the formula: “I choose to … because I want ….”

In this way, we realize what motivates our actions. We are becoming more in tune with our needs, allowing us to better understand our values ​​and be more honest with ourselves.
Expressing anger fully

Hearing about “non-violent” communication, one would think that anger has no place in this process. This is incorrect. The author encourages us to fully express our anger. The first step to fully express anger is to take full responsibility. The target of our anger may be a trigger but is not responsible for our emotions. We must pay full attention to our feelings and needs. The author emphasizes that we are much more likely to achieve what we want by expressing our needs than by judging, criticizing or punishing the other.

The author counts 4 steps necessary to the healthy expression of anger:
  • Take a break, and breathe deeply
  • Identify the judgments that come to mind
  • Become aware of our needs
  • Express our unfulfilled feelings and needs

To learn and apply the CNV process correctly, the key is to take your time. We must break with our conditionings. Judging and criticizing is really anchored in our habits. According to the author, learning this process is long, as is its implementation.

The Use of Force for Protection Purposes

Very rarely, it is nevertheless impossible to communicate, in the case of an imminent danger for example. The use of force may be unavoidable and should be used for protection.

However, according to the author, the repressive use of force and punishment is not effective. The use of force generates resistance to the behavior we seeks to arouse. As for the punishment, it diminishes the sincerity of the reports and directs attention to what will happen if one acts badly, and not on the act itself. For example, an employee who is afraid of sanctions will do his job, but with no desire or enthusiasm. In the long run, he will be less productive and relations with his employer will not be healthy …

Expressing gratitude

According to the author, compliments often take the form of judgments, even if they are positive. They are sometimes even used to influence the behavior of others. In CNV, expressing gratitude is divided into 3 stages:
  • the specific actions which contributed to our well-being
  • the needs of ours that have been fulfilled
  • the pleasurable feelings engendered by fulfillment of those needs

We should also receive appreciation with the same empathy we give other messages. Sadly we tend to search for improvements instead of celebrating how well things are going or we are often uncomfortable receiving praise. We should not receive a compliment with superiority or false humility. When we listen to the effect we have had on others, we can realize the joyous reality that we can make each other’s lives better. We should cultivate an awareness of what others are doing that enriches our lives, and tell them!


Reading this book was like a slap in the face. It is like discovering a mirror of our own mistakes when communicating with others or ourselves. Marshall Rosenberg presents in his book a great sum of knowledge, method and example of how we communicate and how to improve this communication. He strongly believes in his radical way of communicating with other which offers a vision so benevolent that it could be considered as unattainable or even alien. And clearly applying the principles and methods of the book will be very difficult for anybody. I don’t even think I could really apply them. However just understanding what could be done to improve our communication is very good first step and just for this I recommend to read about this Non Violent Communication, it can surely greatly improve our life.

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